Multinational Monitor

SEP 2003
VOL 24 No. 9


Fishing Off the Deep End - And Back
by Carl Safina

Dead Seas: Nutrient Pollution in Coastal Waters
by Doug Daigle

Coasts at Risk: Coastal Sprawl and the Shore
by David Helvarg

Deep Trouble: Corporate and Military Designs on the Deep Seas
by Deborah Cramer

The Seaweed Rebellion: Marine Grassroots Movements to Protect Coastal and Ocean Ecosystems
by David Helvarg


Working for a New Ocean Ethos: Ocean Activism on the Shorelines
an interview with Christopher Evans


Behind the Lines

A Sea Change to Reverse the Oceans Crisis

The Front
Executive Excess

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Working for a New Ocean Ethos: Ocean Activism on the Shorelines

An Interview with Christopher Evans

Christopher Evans has been executive director of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in San Clemente, California dedicated to ocean and coastal protection, since 1999. Before joining Surfrider, Evans spent 15 years as a prosecutor in the Orange County, California District Attorney's Office, where he ended up running the homicide division. He has also worked as a fire fighter and paramedic. Evans is a lifelong sailor, surfer and ocean enthusiast.

Multinational Monitor: You are a former prosecutor. What crimes are being committed against the public seas?

Chris Evans: There are two kinds of crimes being committed against the public seas.

There are for sure specific lawless acts that are important individually, big ones and small ones.

But the trickier and more interesting aspect to me are the subtle, long-term, not so easily seen ways in which we treat the ocean. This involves what we call our ocean ethos. It's really less akin to a violation of criminal law and more akin to a sickness that we have.

MM: What are the major issues Surfrider deals with?

Evans: Our mission statement explains that we are working for the protection of oceans, waves and beaches for all people through conservation, activism, research and education.

The big issues we deal with have changed a little over the years, but there's been less change than you might imagine.

It's dirty ocean water, dirty receiving water; improper coastal development; and coastal erosion issues, the issues of how people respond to natural coastal erosion and coastal access.

Our right to get to the ocean is an inalienable right. We can bicker about coastal sand ownership, but the point is that it is everybody's ocean.

It is through that framework that we view issues like the current West Coast debate over desalinization plants. It appears we're on the verge of adopting a business model to stick a straw into our public oceans and privatize that water.

MM: How important is litigation to your campaign strategy?

Evans: We're not a big litigation shop. Litigation has been a secondary program towards the primary program of chapter support.

We have evolved into a place where we do everything we can not to litigate because we believe it is more cost effective to use grassroots power to change the situation without litigation.

The essence of grassroots activism is to be fighting these fights whether we win or lose them -- and building the army along the way.

It's the Cesar Chavez model. Most people can't tell you the name of the union he founded, and they sure can't tell you what agricultural pesticides he researched and what laws he helped win. They can't tell you which hunger strike was which and what year he struck for this or that, or where he marched from and to.

But here's what is absolutely well known: if you looked as an American at a field in about 1960, you probably didn't even see the migrant workers in that field. But when you now look at a field of migrant workers, you see people.

He created a completely different ethos.

Part of our model is to look at these events that happen in the ocean, these issues as ways to build the movement, to build the army. Because these problems are going to be here long after we're gone.

As Peter Douglas [executive director of the California Coastal Commission] told me when I came to Surfrider, "Relax, you're not going to save the ocean. The oceans are going to need saving every day after you are dead." And he's right. But what we can do is build an army, like Chavez did, change the characteristic and distinguishing beliefs of the people of our country and how they treat the ocean.

But we do sometimes file lawsuits. We generally sue on Clean Water Act violations. We generally sue municipalities and regional government agencies. In improper coastal development situations, we wind up either suing the government body that is the determining body of the process or the developer.

The purpose of these suits and grassroots campaigns isn't just to win the immediate fight.

For example, over a year ago, we filed a lawsuit in San Diego over a sea wall, even though there is a lot of beach there. It almost doesn't matter if we won that particular case, because lawsuits are like buses, there'll be another one along any minute.

MM: Is a political constituency emerging for the oceans?

Evans: There's no question about it. As things get worse, the public has seen it, and they don't tolerate it.

We actually have a very easy time winning these grassroots battles.

We won one last year in conjunction with some other grassroots groups, stopping the dumping of 240 million gallons a day of partially treated sewage into the ocean off southern California from this big plant in Huntington Beach.

I have to tell you, the grassroots part was not difficult.

We're in a good social environment right now. People care about the environment, they care about the ocean, they just flat do. We were able to just pack meeting hall after meeting hall. That does a bunch of things.

Not only does it show decision makers that the public isn't going to tolerate this, it winds up getting in the papers. Pretty soon, you've got a snowball. Grassroots folks have to use these events to recruit human beings into the movement.

Winning that issue at Huntington Beach wasn't important as compared to how many people came over to our side. If they're going to come over, their neighbors may come over, their kids may come over. Then they start reading our newsletter, they start reading other groups' newsletters, maybe they join other groups.

MM: One major recent achievement of the grassroots was passage in 2000 of the BEACH (Beaches Environmental Assessment and Clean-Up Health Act) bill.

Evans: The bill was authored by Brian Bilbray, former Republican representative from San Diego. A guy from our legal issues team, Gary Sirota, worked with Bilbray on that.

A lot of people in the ocean environmental world came together to work on the bill -- American Oceans Campaign, Environmental Defense, NRDC, our group, everybody.

Our part was getting our chapters involved, keeping the issues in the public eye, pitching stories to the media, sending people to Washington to testify.

I say that some victories don't matter, but this one really mattered.

The BEACH bill took California-style water testing, and made it a federal mandate. States are now required to test and post notice of ocean water quality monitoring results so people get a chance to "know before they go." It costs only $30 million a year to run the program.

It's important to surfers and divers and kayakers and swimmers because they wear that water. They're in that water, it's in their nose, their mouths, their ears. Although it is mostly anecdotal, there is a long legion of stories of people getting sick after contact with receiving waters.

MM: And as a result we're seeing increased numbers of beach closures every summer?

Evans: We're definitely seeing increased results of posting and closure. We can't say for sure if it's because we're testing waters or because the water is getting dirtier.

I think both are true.

The more you test, the more you will find that the water's dirty.

But the massive population shift to the coast puts more pressure on the terminal watershed on our coasts. Urban runoff, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is the biggest culprit.

MM: You deal with a lot of government agencies, but have a particularly conflictual relationship with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Evans: I believe their process is intellectually dishonest. They want to develop and build and engineer their way out of things, common sense be damned, and cumulative impact be damned. The Corps needs massive reform and there's a movement starting to do that. We're very excited about that prospect.

MM: The origins of Surfrider involve Army Corp plans to build in coastal areas.

Evans: Surfrider has been in battle with the Army Corp ever since 1980, for the last 20 years on different issues, all over the place.

The longest running issue we've had with the Corps is at Ma'alaea harbor on the isthmus of Maui, where we have a booming chapter. It is illustrative of the problem with the Corps.

If you stand on the breakwater -- which, amazingly, is built from rocks taken from a sacred Hawaiian temple -- you can see that this is no place to build a harbor.

There's so much surge, so much natural ocean violence there, it's just not a spot for a harbor. They've had problems with it ever since it was built.

The Army Corps solution was to build a bigger harbor. They produced a cost-benefit analysis to justify the expansion that was a fraud. For example, it projected fuel savings because people could keep their boats slipped [docked in the water] rather than trailering [driving them back-and-forth from a land-based storage space].

This harbor would destroy not just the surf break, but one of the most famous permanent waves in the world, what has come to be regarded as the world's fastest wave, a place known as Freight Train or the Maui Pipeline.

It is also on a coral reef that is a rare habitat for all kinds of animals, including sea turtles. And it is right in the middle of a whale breeding ground. For thousands of years, that isthmus has been a whale calving ground.

So here we go again: Let's build it up, let's destroy, let's treat the ocean as a resource that we can exploit.

We've been in a long battle with the Corps and we're not going away. That harbor's not going to get developed, I can assure you of that.

Some might ask, Why should anybody care about waves?

I'll tell you why. One of the things we've come to learn as we're cataloging wave resources is that permanent waves are rare. And it appears at this point, that they really cannot be reproduced by artificial reefs. They cannot be reproduced by man. Once they're gone, they're gone.

Ma'alaea, Freight Train, is a wave that kings surfed on. It's a wave that is home to generations of animals. It's a place that was a fishing home for the first Hawaiians. And it's a place that modern Hawaiians and Americans have enjoyed as a surfing resource.

No matter how you stack it up, it's something that just has to be saved. Natural resources, spiritual resources, maritime heritage, it's all those things.

MM: And because you have 60 chapters you have battles like this all across the coastal United States?

Evans: Yes, we do.

We have two chapters in Puerto Rico, one in RincÛn, in western Puerto Rico. At RincÛn, we have a similar situation to Ma'alaea, and this will be another long battle. We just recently defeated the building of some hotels in this area.

There's a famous wave there, Tres Palmas, it's kind of the east coast Hawaii for surfers. There's Elkhorn coral there, and a small fishing fleet.

And due to development plans, the wave is in danger of going away, and the surf economy and the diving economy -- things that are sustainable for the people that live there without going to a motel maid job -- along with a rich surfing heritage are all in danger.

The people have risen up in that community and they're not going to take it.

We're never going away.

MM: Two national ocean commissions, the Pew Commission and the federal panel, are issuing reports this year. The Pew Commission has recommended passage of an organic oceans act, like the Clean Air or the Clean Water Act, to protect the oceans. But it seems like achieving passage of such a law would probably take years of what you're doing, of building up the seaweed/marine grassroots movements.

Evans: That's a great way to say it.

And you know what?

There isn't another way.

MM: Right, and there are definite salt water special interests that are setting policy today.

Evans: Exactly, from the sport fishing people to the industrial people.

It's high time to stop regarding the ocean as purely a resource or a dump. That's what we're working up to out here in the hinterlands.

I'm not a scientist, but we can understand what the scientists are telling us, we can see it in the ocean everyday, we're in the ocean everyday.

It needs care, right now and forever.

One of our best activists here in Southern California recently got this flesh-eating bacteria.

Six of our activists went out surfing one day, at the Gabriel River mouth, all six got really sick. One of them got this streptococcus, flesh-eating bacteria thing.

Could be a coincidence, huh?

But we know the problem, we feel it, it's in our soul.

What we're about is getting people activated.

If I was going to give you a neat positioning statement for what we do, it's about activating and helping citizens activate in their community to nurture the ocean, nurture the coastal ocean.

That's what it is about.

That's good for surfing, and that means it is good for the ocean.

Surfing is one of the few activities in life that is truly collaborative with nature.

When the wave form comes in, transmits across the abysmal ocean and feels, senses the land, senses the reefs and the rising shore, creates a manifestation of this wave, it's a spiritual thing, this mathematical thing.

And surfers get to ride on it.

They take nothing and they leave nothing.


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